(In case I don’t make it clear enough in the post, this message is for white people. Specifically, about our responsibility for racism even if we’re against it and needing to face that if we’re ever going to move on.)
Like a lot of people I know, I’m not great at seeing racism. That’s partly because, like a lot of white people my age, I was taught a “colorblind” approach to race. That is, there is no inherent difference between different races, therefore the correct approach should be to ignore race altogether. Racism was understood as treating anyone differently because of race, even mentioning race because that would mean you saw them differently. Therefore to end racism meant to never bring it up, never allow anyone to be treated differently, never suggest there were differences.
One day early in high school my elderly neighbor asked how many students of different races we had. I couldn’t answer and kept trying to explain I didn’t know because I’d never looked. She got really mad at me because she thought I was being PC and avoiding the question so I wouldn’t seem racist (and therefore suggesting she was racist for asking). But I really didn’t know. (I’m sure it won’t surprise regular readers much to know that I didn’t spend much time interacting with other students.) So the next day I went to school and looked. And noticed for the first time how incredibly white my community was and started to wonder why.
The “I don’t see race” approach lets people ignore things like that. Maybe most of the time it’s not quite as literal as that, even for me it hasn’t always been as literal as that. Even having my eyes opened like this, for years later I didn’t pay enough attention to realize how white my entertainment is. That’s something that I had to have pointed out to me and that now I make conscious effort to notice, like that first day at high school. We’re so used to seeing ourselves at the center of everything, we forget to question it. We trust that everything’s equal so there must be a fair balance but then we just don’t actually look.
It lets people ignore the obvious differences in opportunity, the way the system is set up to center white people and help us succeed at the expense of everyone else. Which occasionally means it even lets people think things like Black History Month or minority scholarships are racist because they’re giving some people a boost based on race. I remember a social studies class in high school (I don’t remember the name but it was basically Social Justice 101 and it was awesome) where a wealthy white male senior in our class full of middle-upper class white kids spent 20 minutes yelling about affirmative action giving other people an unfair advantage over him.
Let’s be clear, no one at my school was in danger of not going to college if they wanted to. We were all taught that we deserved a college education, we were at one of the best schools in the state, and any loans we took out were going to be worth it because a college degree would guarantee we’d be able to get great jobs and get everything we ever wanted out of life. We were taught we were entitled to go to college, we never had to work for it any more than we worked to get to the next grade. It was just the next step after high school that pretty much everyone took. And the colorblind approach let us assume that was basically the same everywhere and that everyone started on equal footing, never thinking about how the fact that there were only white kids in our class was itself proof that things were not equal. At the time, I was just starting to see that and still didn’t quite know what it meant. How could there not be equality by now? The civil rights movement was ages ago!
So moving beyond that approach, what about real, violent, actually oppressive racism? That we were taught as things that happened to Someone Else, a long time ago or in communities far from ours or only done by “bad people.” Even during black history month, we don’t learn about black history. We learn about black history as it relates to white people. The timeline goes like this: Slavery => Underground Railroad => Civil War => Time Skip to Civil Rights Movement => Done! We learn about Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. Every year. From that short simplified lesson, you really can get the idea that slavery was this bizarre little blip that started about 5 years before the civil war, people instantly realized it was a Bad Idea and put an end to it, and that we’d worked out all our problems with racism by the late 60s. After all, we never have to experience it. We don’t see ourselves as a product of it, because we’re told it’s over and we’re not confronted with it day after day.
There’s another problem with the way we learn about racism, and I’ve been seeing examples of it posted in anti-racism communities all month long. Have you ever had an assignment like this? There are variations on it, but it’s basically “Imagine what it would be like to be a slave. How would it feel to be auctioned off, to be treated as less than human, to risk your life for freedom, to finally be free?” That might come in the form of reading a book where the main character is a slave, or experiencing racism in a post-slavery world (in my school it was Mildred D. Taylor’s books) and being asked how we think those characters felt. I can see where that assignment comes from. Of course we want to emphasize the horror of what was done and recognize that we should never do something like that. Of course we want to center the stories on the oppressed.
But here’s the problem: it ignores our part in that oppression. When I learned about racism, when I read books about black characters experiencing horrible mistreatment, I was able to place myself in the shoes of the oppressed. I think that I would never do the things white people did then even if I lived at that time, because I’m not racist, because I’ve “experienced” it myself, because I’m a “good person” and I know better and I’m on the right side. We learn to think of racism as something that is mostly gone now, that we only visit (like tourists!) so that we can understand. We don’t have to confront our own privilege or see the racism that built our lives because our experience of racism is mostly in terms of stories where we identify with the victims.
And of course we don’t want to do that assignment in reverse. I certainly don’t want to see assignments where kids are asked to think about how a white slave-owner might have felt and possibly justify how someone, let alone a whole country, could get to the point where that seems reasonable. (But then again, maybe we should? Maybe examining that feeling of entitlement and how it hurts people will hit home if framed right?) So maybe we need to get beyond empathy here. I’m obviously not saying we shouldn’t read those stories, but we need to understand they’re not about us. History shouldn’t only matter when we can place ourselves at the center of it again and see it happening to us, we should be able to understand other people are people and that any person being mistreated is bad whether we can imagine how it feels or not.
And btw, we can’t. This is another problem with that approach – we think we understand, but we can put the book or pen down and go back to our comfortable lives afterward. We don’t know what it’s like to actually live with it, to have our whole lives limited by the aftereffects of slavery. All we can do there is listen, and we don’t do nearly enough of that. Talking about the way we think it might feel to live like that is just talking over the people who actually experience it and it doesn’t get us anywhere. And the idea that others’ narratives have to make sense to us and we have to experience racism ourselves before we believe it’s real is so disrespectful and patronizing.
Obviously it’s true that we shouldn’t need a Black History Month, just like it’s true that a month is not enough, especially when it’s the same self-serving story over and over again. We need to be willing to talk about the way our country was built on oppression from the start. If we’re learning American History (and as far as I remember that was the biggest focus, if not quite all we discussed), we need to talk about black history from the start because black people were here from the start. When we talk about George Washington, we need to talk about the fact that he felt slavery was wrong but still owned slaves just like other founding fathers. We can’t talk about our national heroes and cover over the parts of their lives that we don’t like and don’t want to identify with.
When we talk about racism we need to understand it as something that’s been built into the system all along and that still affects the ways we live today. As white people we need to face the fact that our place in that story is largely with the oppressor and that even if we don’t want to benefit from racism, we do. Racism isn’t caused by a few bad people a long time ago. It’s about all the “good people” who had doubts about it or even felt strongly that it was wrong but let it happen because they didn’t want to shake things up or maybe even because they just didn’t know what to do about it and didn’t see a way to ending it.
It’s about living our lives with all the privileges we obviously have and still somehow thinking we’ve earned it and that race has nothing to do with our success. It’s the result of a whole bunch of people who could have stopped it looking the other way, saying they’re not like those “bad people” so they’re not responsible and therefore not feeling a need to intervene. We are responsible. Racism is our problem and it affects our lives whether we pay attention to it or not, and the only way to fix that is to own up to our part in it and take that responsibility.
I’ll be honest, I don’t even know what that means in terms of real action. I don’t know how to fix the problem. But I know pretending it’s not there doesn’t actually make it go away so at the very least we have to start with seeing it, pointing it out, talking about it. Stop getting defensive about it, don’t feel guilty (because that helps no one) but recognize that we’re all responsible and that it’s not enough not to be actively racist. When our whole lives are built on the backs of others, being a decent person and wishing it wasn’t that way doesn’t get us a pass. Our ancestors created a racist system, we benefit from it, and we are the ones who need to step up and dismantle it.